In a sense, the first battles of the Civil War were fought in Congress. Between 1830 and 1860, there were at least 80 violent incidents between congressmen in the House and Senate chambers or nearby, as the country and its politicians grappled with racism, abolition, expansion of slavery, Native American removal or massacre and war with Mexico. The threat of violence was so routine that it had a significant impact on congressional debate. Bullying was a favored tactic of Southern legislators, and both Northern and Southern politicians shared concerns about defending one’s honor and party. Voters often re-elected combatants who were literally fighting for their constituents.
Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman spent many years researching this subject, which she explores in great detail in her compelling and enlightening The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War, which reveals “for the first time the full scope and scale of physical violence in Congress” during the antebellum years. Although she draws on a wide range of sources, at the center of her narrative is Benjamin Brown French, whose various positions in government usually involved working closely with congressmen, and he seems to have been present whenever an important event occurred. He was a superb political operative, a fine writer and keen observer, and his 11 volumes of diary entries make him indispensable as an eyewitness to history.
Freeman masterfully describes the confluence of events that led to the Republicans’ close loss in the presidential election of 1856, noting, “Congressional violence ushered in the Third Party System.” This realistic look behind the scenes of the corridors of power vividly shows why there were many weapon-wearing congressmen by 1860. They were not armed to gun people down—they just wanted to protect themselves. Freeman’s pathbreaking book should be read by anyone interested in Congress, the Civil War or American history in general.